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Turning People into lab rats
By Devinder Sharma

Government is in a tearing hurry to allow production and sale of GM food in the country but who will take the responsibility in case its consumption turns out to be harmful for health.

It couldn't have been better timed. Mahesh Bhatt's powerful documentary film Poison on the Platter comes at a time when India's first genetically modified (GM) food crop - Bt brinjal - awaits commercialization. A few more months of sponsored research trials, and an unwanted and unhealthy food crop would be ready for its first serving.

Mahesh Bhatt has awakened the nation to the emerging dangers from consuming GM foods. Piecing together some of the startling cases of food poisoning, which for obvious reasons the GM food industry doesn't want to talk about, the film does force the people to think. It provides thought for GM food.

While the jury is still not out about the safety of GM foods, the biotech industry is in a tearing hurry to force it down the throat of gullible consumers. After the European Union resisted the take-over of the food chain by the GM industry, especially in the aftermath of the disastrous impact of first the mad cow disease and then the foot-and-mouth disease, the GM industry shifted its focus to developing countries. India, with a lax regulatory regime and an easily manipulative agricultural scientific system, became an easy target.      

While the jury is still not sure about the safety of GM foods, the biotech industry is in a tearing hurry to force it down the throat of gullible consumers. In fact, India has become the world's biggest dustbin for GM technology.

In fact, India has become the world's biggest dustbin for GM technology. In addition to Bt cotton, and now with the likelihood of the introduction of Bt brinjal, there are some 56 crops, mostly staple foods and vegetables, in the advanced stages of research and field trials. And this includes rice, sugarcane, soybean, tomato, cauliflower, bhindi, and potato. Poison on the Platter therefore comes as a timely warning.

Image: greenoptions

What worries me is that like the cigarette industry, which kept the safety data away from public glare for several decades, the Maharashtra Hybrid Seed Company (Mahyco), which developed Bt brinjal, too is unwilling to disclose the human safety data citing confidentiality and commercial interests as the reasons. It was only after the courts intervened that the company has been forced to make public the data from research trials. The underlying message is crystal clear. The public must believe the companies. People have no right to know what they are eating.

In a way it is true. The hush-hush manner, in which the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC), the apex approval authority for genetically altered crops/foods, has been clearing and allowing large-scale field trials of GM crops, is enough of an indication that it is merely a rubber stamp for the biotechnology industry. Throwing all scientific norms of research and evaluation to wind, and not even bothering to analyse the toxicity data for human and animal health, it has been blindly accepting the data presented by the companies.

I wonder how the public can be a silent spectator. After all, the Bt gene in brinjal makes the fruit 1000 times more toxic than the toxins that exists in the normal sprays of Bt bio-pesticides. To say that the Bt toxin in brinjal is safe for human health, when its much-paler bio-pesticides sprays can kill insects, is certainly not palatable. Moreover, brinjal is not only cooked, it is also used raw and the toxin would remain in such cases. As I said in the film, imagine keeping a Bt brinjal in a glass container along with a few shoot borer insects that normally feed on brinjal. You will see that these insects will die. If these insects can die from feeding on Bt brinjal, I wonder what will happen when the same Bt brinjal goes into our stomach.

The company of course claims that 5 to 10 minutes of cooking kills the Bt toxin. Is it 5 minute cooking that is safe enough or do we have to go in for 10 minutes? If this is true, than shouldn't the GEAC make it mandatory for housewives to keep thermometer in their kitchens? And what will happen if my child for instance eats raw Bt brinjal while playing around? Will he survive? Still worse, do we have adequate medical tests prescribed that can detect the damage done by Bt toxin in the human body?      

Imagine keeping a Bt brinjal in a glass container along with a few shoot borer insects that normally feed on brinjal. You will see that these insects will die. If these insects can die from feeding on Bt brinjal, what will happen when the same Bt brinjal goes into our stomach.

Besides Bt brinjal, most of the GM crops are being promoted as an alternative to chemical pesticides. That the GM crops reduce the application of chemical pesticides too has been proven incorrect. In China, where Bt cotton was hailed as a silver-bullet for cotton farmers, a Cornell University study has shown that cotton farmers in China growing Bt crop, are actually using more pesticides and therefore incurring losses. In India too, Bt cotton has not reduced the application of pesticides.

In the United States, GM corn, soybean and cotton have reportedly led to 122 million pounds increase in pesticides usage since 1996. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) now admits that yields of GM soyabean and corn have actually fallen. The University of Nebraska and the Kansas University have also made similar conclusions.

Moreover, weed resistance to 'herbicide-tolerant' GM crops in the US exists in 15 million acres. At least 30 'super weeds' - which cannot be controlled by any means - have developed in North America. In India, several new pests have emerged on Bt cotton. Reports of failure of Bt cotton, including hundreds of Bt cotton farmers committing suicide, have also poured in. But who cares? The GEAC goes on merrily putting its stamp of approval on company studies.

With the former Science and Technology minister Kapil Sibal repeatedly asserting that the government is "pro-GM crops", it is quite obvious as to whose interests it is promoting. The entire regulatory system therefore is eyewash, and borders on sham. The only way to see that the government-biotechnology industry nexus does not play havoc with human health is to hold the Minister as well as the GEAC members liable for any mishap. Put them behind bars if any untoward bio-safety accident takes place. Someone has to be held accountable for playing with human safety.

Make the liability clause absolutely stringent and you will see the biotechnology industry closing shop. That is what the essential message from Mahesh Bhatt's film is.

The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. 

Write to the Author  |  Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

 Other Articles by Devinder Sharma in
Human Development  > Food > GM Food and Concerns

Bad science joins paid science
Monday, September 27, 2010

Entire India, more so its young scientists and students, is left embarrassed and ashamed after expose of ‘copy and paste’ job done by the heads of India’s top science academies to push GM food into India. While these academy heads continue to cling to their posts despite being exposed of disgraceful deeds, the incident only confirms the widespread corruption and incompetence in India’s academic and research institutions.

Thou shalt not question GM food!
Wednesday, March 03, 2010

The proposed National Biotechnology Regulatory Authority Bill threatens the very essence of democratic values and freedom.

Why we should oppose Bt brinjal?
Thursday, February 11, 2010

Though the government of India has cancelled the GEAC approval for commercial cultivation of Bt brinjal, majority of people remain unaware of the facts related to the controversy. Here are FAQs to help the readers:
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The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

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Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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